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AoC president Steve Frampton: the future of assessment is now

Steve Frampton

Currently when it comes to assessment in education, the sector is, like most others, still in the dark ages, with the standard pen and paper format unchanged for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Sticking to this norm has meant we have failed to fully meet the needs and expectations of our learners this year.  

If assessment were available digitally now, it would have made a massive, positive difference to thousands - maybe even millions - of pupils, students, apprentices, adult learners, their teachers and lecturers, college leaders and parents by removing the stress and anxiety that’s been caused by the abandonment of exams.   

In response to the pandemic, our amazing FE teachers and other staff are already digitally-transforming course delivery - and at pace too. My worry is that the need highlighted by lockdown for change to the archaic assessment process will be wasted.  

Opportunities for redesigning assessment

Rather than go back to the ‘old’ norm, we could take a blank sheet of paper to redesign teaching, learning and assessment as an integrated whole. That would be good for parents, employers, teachers and, most of all, students. The tech exists; now we need solid political will. I don’t even think it will cost more. Rather, it’s a case of redistributing resources.  

The importance of student input

In time, as we emerge from the pandemic, I would hope that the assessment boards, working with Jisc, will convene forward-looking teams to scope out what could be done differently and better in future: what are the lessons and opportunities of the ‘new’ world view of education?  Policy makers, professional associations and membership bodies should also be involved in the process, and – critically - students. 

We need to ask students what they want in terms of learning and assessment and let’s also remember there’s no one-size-fits all approach. I think there will be many learners who will be enjoying this online way of life, particularly those who normally commute or experience unhealthily early starts and late finishes, and those who are most comfortable in a more virtual and less sociable context.

For others, in the performing arts and sports fields, for example, it will be very much more challenging. So, it’s important that any ‘new’ forms of delivery and assessment can be flexible and meet the needs of all students more effectively, and especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. 

The problem with the current system

Besides causing difficulty for some students, the current system of assessment is also alienating large sections of the labour force and if we really want to capture the talents of the nation, and provide the workforce the UK needs to rebuild the post COVID-19 economy over coming years, there's a need to be as agile, flexible, diverse and inclusive as possible.   

One of the two biggest problems with most traditional end-of-course assessments is unfairness – because it benefits only the few who can retain a lot of information, who have good parental support and are studying at good institutions. This method assesses a very narrow range of attributes, and rarely those which employers will need in a tech-dominated post COVID-19 future. 

Secondly, what do exam grades tell us about the individual and the skills and attitudes they have? Very little, and some argue, nothing; they are highly irrelevant to the world of work. Qualifications only tell us what people can remember and apply under extreme artificial pressure.  

Employers now are more interested in well-rounded individuals with cultural values that fit with their organisation. If we had a value-led curriculum with a meaningful assessment, involving tech and teacher assessment, we’d be more quickly producing people with these attributes, and doing it more fairly.   

Changing assessment through innovation

What we need is a root and branch system and holistic change – and a 2020 Jisc report – the future of assessment - could support the sector to do that. It is really helpful and highlights that there are far too few examples of innovation and excellence and the pace of change is too slow, with which I agree.  

While there are some incredible FE professionals doing fantastic things around the country experimenting with alternative ways of assessment, which are highlighted in the report, there are only small pockets of such innovative practice because, for the most part, changing assessment is not in colleges’ control; for now, it has to be done a certain way.  

When I was principal at Portsmouth College, we could change the shape of the day for students, so they could work within their natural sleep patterns, and change the length of lessons and the method of curriculum delivery through technology. We could massively enhance learners’ employability and enterprise skills, develop their political, cultural and economic literacy and better support their mental health, but I couldn’t change how they were assessed, which was really frustrating.  

The aforementioned Jisc report, its Education 4.0 work, and the current enforced and ongoing need to shift to mainly  online delivery could, together, be a real catalyst for change and I hope that it gains decision-makers’ attention. It would be a shame we just saw this as a technology assessment issue, when it’s much more than that – it’s about holistic education co-constructed with our learners. 

What’s exciting is that, if we can get the assessment process right, it’ll lead to better curriculum, improved and more exciting teaching and learning and significantly more skills development. It could also create more involved and more resilient citizens.  

As the Jisc report so powerfully says, to do nothing presents the greatest risk – we’d be failing tomorrow’s learners and allowing the widening social mobility trends to continue.